WHAT ARE WHAT WE ARE, NOT SO MUCH WHAT WE DO.
ISAIAH 1, 10-20, PSALM 50, LUKE 12:32-40
AUGUST 9, 1998 by Tad Mitsui
When his close friend and a co-worker Howie Mills died suddenly at the age of fifty-three, the Very Reverend Sang Chul Lee, the former Moderator of the United Church, pointed his finger at heaven said, "This is not right. You are wrong this time." This surprised me, because I had never expected Sang Chul to complain to God. He was a faithful and wise servant of God and impressed me as a person who would be willing to undertake any difficult task for God and for the church.
For me, God was the ultimate authority. I did not believe that one could complain to God. It was a kind of things that a person of no faith would do. But the Prophet Isaiah surprised me in the same way. In the verse 18, God was proposing to people, "Let us argue this out." In the beginning of the chapter, God had been speaking about all the wrong things people were doing. And yet after all that diatribe he suggested, "Let”s sit down and talk about this." He didn”t sound like someone who lays down the law and punishes whoever would not obey him. In this sentence, God is ready to negotiate with you, like a lawyer proposing immunity from prosecution.
Isaiah is reminding us that our relationship with God is a covenant – a contract between partners. The God we believe in, according to the Bible, is the God who respects us and invites us into a covenant with him. This is one important expression of God”s love for us. In a truly loving relationship, one party does not exercise arbitrary power over another. It is a give-and-take. Friendship, marriage, or parenthood can be a true relationship when there is a mutual respect for each other. Our God is the God who became a human being, by giving up his godly power, to live among us, suffered like us, and died like us. He became an equal partner. We are who we are in a relationship to someone, especially to God. That is the basis of our most fundamental identity.
We are ”human beings”, not ”human doings”. We must know what we are simply as "beings" before we do anything. However, many of us, especially men, don”t know who we are except through what we do for living. When we are asked to introduce ourselves, we usually mention our jobs after our names. This is why for many years women, who stayed home to look after children and homes were treated like nobodies, even though they had much heavier work load than many paid jobs. We must know who we are before whatever we do. Knowing who we are is knowing the meaning of life. Doing things without knowing who we are is like driving a car not knowing where we are going.
For many years, parents have expressed their hopes and aspirations for their children in the acts of naming them. Unfortunately, today we do not take the meaning of the names seriously as much as our ancestors used to. Names used to give more profound identifications to persons. Abraham in Hebrew means ”Father of Nation”, for example. Many cultures still maintain that tradition to take seriously the meaning of a child”s name. In Lesotho in Africa where I worked for some years, naming a child is a serious business. The names are always parents” prayers for the children. "Mpho – gift" for a girl and "Thabo – joy" for a boy, expressing the parents” gratitude for the gift of a child. Some children have terrible names like "Moiketsi – manure" and "Tsietsi – trouble". The idea to give such terrible names is to lure an unwanted attention of the devil away from the special child, like a first born. In Hebrew tradition, when one reached adulthood, another name was added to express one”s own hopes and aspirations. That was how Jacob later in his life became Israël meaning "God”s chosen one".
So the names in the Bible were always deeply representative of who people were. One day on a mountain, Moses wanted to know how he could introduce God to people. So he asked God his name. But God answered, "I am what I am". A name was not just an identification mark. It had to describe the whole being. This is why "I am what I am" was the only name God could give at that moment. God was trying to tell Moses that the true knowledge of God would come only through relationship with him. God did not allow a simplistic description of himself "in a nutshell." We enter into a relationship in trust in a covenant, then our knowledge of God grows as we interact with him in our daily life. It should be like that in our relationship with another human being, too.
I believe that one of the serious problems we have today is a crisis of identity. We are not quite sure who we are. If we have nothing to do, we feel worthless – we feel like nobody. When you become unemployed your self-esteem plummets and you feel you are nobody, because what you do for money is often the only way you know who you are. But being busy doing a lot of things does not solve the problem, because you don”t know who you are, therefore you don”t know why you are doing all this. It is time we claim our identities in relationships – as someone”s beloved, not just a series of numbers on a plastic card. Your children know who you are oblivious of what you do for living, because you are their parent first and foremost, and you are loved by them.
Most importantly, we are what we are in relationship with God; we are his beloved. God treats us as his equals as covenant partners, and even invites us to argue issues with him. Let us spend more time thinking about who we are. We already spend too much time worrying about what we do. Too many things to do drive us crazy and often waste our life. But when we know who we are in relationships, we will know what to do without wasting our life away.